E Nesbit: New Treasure Seekers
Puffin Classics 1982 (1904)
The well-meaning but accident-prone Bastable siblings are given another outing by Edith Nesbit, following on from the success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1900). We reacquaint ourselves with the ‘anonymous’ author Oswald, with all his familiar malapropisms and self-proclaimed modesty, along with his siblings Dora (the sensible eldest) and then, after Oswald, Dicky (his frequent lieutenant), Alice, Noël (a wouldbe poet), and Horace Octavius (or H. O.).
The thirteen episodes often reference exotic places (including Rome, China, Italy or the Golden Orient) though we never leave the confines of Kent: they also ‘big up’ the protagonists (‘The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant’), suggest dastardly deeds are afoot (‘Archibald the Unpleasant’, ‘The Turk in Chains; or, Richard’s Revenge’) or feature the Bastables’ charitable but doomed attempts to remedy the scrapes they have got themselves into (‘The Conscience-Pudding’ and ‘The Poor and Needy’). As ever, you sense their hearts are in the right place even if their steps constantly lead them astray. Even when they are involved in revenge (at least twice!) you feel they are attempting to right wrongs to the best of their imagination, ability and reasoning.
Dedicated to the illustrator Arthur Watts, who would have been between eleven and sixteen when the Bastable stories started appearing in periodicals, New Treasure Seekers has the Bastable siblings in their middleclass home in Lewisham, London, as their stock has marginally gone up in the world since the previous books were published; the last few chapters in fact see them by the seaside, near Lymchurch in Kent (a thinly disguised Dymchurch, near where Nesbit was eventually to be buried). They are — extraordinarily to our modern notions — largely left to their own devices; school is rarely mentioned, if at all (the ‘unpleasant’ Archibald attends one in term time) and life therefore seems to consist of one long holiday.
Every so often we are given a few autobiographical details in Oswald’s flowery mangling of a high literary style mixed with schoolboy slang, as in ‘Archibald the Unpleasant’:
The house of Bastable was once in poor, but honest, circs. That was when it lived in a semi-detached house in the Lewisham Road, and looked for treasure. There were six scions of the house who looked for it — in fact there were seven, if you count Father. I am sure he looked right enough, but he did not do it the right way. And we did.
Nesbit, to my ears, sounds to have got that young male braggadocio language just right, especially when modulated by Oswald’s genteel bourgeois sensibility — even when he slips into unconscious humour:
And then, when we were no longer so beastly short of pocket-money, we tried to be good, and sometimes it came out right, and sometimes it didn’t. Something like sums.
They all (but Oswald especially) are dismissive or mildly tolerant of Noël’s poetical pretensions, such as
‘My dear sister sits
I hope to goodness the stocking fits’
and the exquisite
‘Oh, Geraldine! Oh, Geraldine!
You are the loveliest heroine!
I never read about one before
That made me want to write more
Poetry. And your Venetian eyes
They must have been an awful size;
And black and blue, and like your hair,
And your nose and chin were a perfect pair.’
“… and so on for ages,” is Oswald’s bitter comment.
Dora, as the eldest, is given due respect but Oswald, despite his gentlemanly inclinations, often feels he should be deferred to more, and is usually the one to call for family ‘councils’ to be take place. Alice is the sensitive one, the epitome of the girly type the author herself generally eschewed, while H. O. scarcely gets a look in after a memorable escapade near the start. We are reminded early on about their particular family tragedy when Oswald alludes to Christmas “nearly a year after Mother died” but declines to write about it, a detail that points up the poignancy of many families at the time when Empire, poverty and illness deprived many of loved ones in distressing circumstances.
Unlike the magic in The Enchanted Castle or the sequence beginning with Five Children and It the ‘magic’ of the Treasure Seekers series is of the mundane sort, but no less enchanting for it. Too soon we arrive at the end of the last chapter to read the doom-laden words
This is the end of the things we did when we were at Lymchurch in Miss Sandal’s house. It is the last story that the present author means ever to be the author of. So goodbye, if you have got as far as this.
Your affectionate author,
Luckily even the last sentences aren’t the last word or even the end of the matter, because four more stories by the ‘affectionate author’ were to appear in the collection Oswald Bastable and Others (1905). But with New Treasure Seekers there is definitely a sense of the closing of the door. I, for one, will miss them.